Will the PTOA Party survive the latest crisis in leadership?

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By Kalafi Moala

Nuku’alofa, Tonga – It is the most well-known political party in the Kingdom of Tonga. And for many years, it was the only political grouping of any significance. Its name PTOA comes from the Tongan acronym of “Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands” (Paati Temokalati ‘Otumotu Anga’ofa).

But the name of the party does give it away, in the sense that it has never been known to be ‘democratic’ in practice or ‘friendly’ for that matter. Not democratic because it has always been dominated or dictated by its late leader, ‘Akilisi Pohiva.

PTOA was his creation, even though unregistered during his life, he was the central figure of the party, the person who brought together all kinds of people, and held most of them together for the good part of 30 years. But after his death, PTOA lost its life, and is in danger of losing its fractured existence altogether.

It is recently reported, and confirmed by ‘Akilisi’s son, Siaosi Pohiva, MP for Tongatapu I, that his brother-in-law Mateni Tapueluelu, MP for Tongatapu 4, had allegedly attacked him.

No details have been revealed about the fallout, but it is serious enough that PTOA supporters, including the Core Team in Parliament are painfully dialoguing the rift, and no one knows for certain the looming outcome.

The two brothers-in-law have always had a tense relationship. Both took to the media last year to publicly apologize for a serious relationship breakdown, that split supporters between them.

Semisi Sika, MP for Tongatapu 2, and reluctant leader of PTOA, when approached for comment, admitted the problem existed but wanted an interview “later.”

Because the political group has been historically the most brutal critic of the establishment since its inception, the idea that they are of the ‘friendly islands’ is a misnomer. They are not only unfriendly to those they disagree with, but even among themselves they display suspicion and rivalry.

It is an established fact PTOA, not only participated in the torching of the Nuku’alofa CBD in 2006 (16/11) but incited and led it. Some of its ardent supporters were charged, convicted, and jailed for crimes associated with the shameful riots that led to the burning of the CBD.

And even though PTOA started having disunity problems before the death of their leader, his death led the party into disarray. Chief among the many problems confronting the party is the fact Mr. Pohiva failed to groom and announced clearly who was going to be his successor.

Those in the PTOA inner circle have acknowledged the fact that Semisi Sika was privately told by ‘Akilisi that he would be the leader to replace him.

‘Isileli Pulu, former right-hand man for ‘Akilisi, and former Cabinet Minister, said: “We knew that when ‘Akilisi dies, the party will be in disarray, and would eventually dismantle unless there emerges a strong leader.”

He said that the current people vying for leadership are new and inexperienced. “One of the problems PTOA faces is that ‘Akilisi did not groom anyone to take over leadership,” he said.

“I don’t believe ‘Akilisi fully trusted Semisi Sika, because he knew his limitations,” ‘Isileli said. “We can tell by his last words to him… ‘to continue performing our work’. It seemed like a rather reluctant appointment.”

“He did not appoint him outright as his replacement. And most of those who are now in the core team did not learn about it first-hand.”

Maybe ‘Akilisi did believe he was going to be around forever, which accounts for not preparing a succession. But his absence as well as the lack of clarity of who is the leader, has proven critically disastrous for PTOA.

‘Isileli Pulu said that he believes Siaosi Pohiva, given time to mature, would be the most appropriate person to lead PTOA. And he believes that even now if they were given a chance to vote among supporters – Sika, Mateni, and Siaosi – that Siaosi would be the one PTOA supporters would pick.

Problem person should be removed

Siaosi Niumeitolu Tu’ihalangingie, a resident of New Zealand, and a community leader with strong political ties to Tonga, said: “Semisi Sika, is unable to solve the problem so that PTOA can move forward. The problem happening with PTOA was that ‘Akilisi made decisions on his own, and it worked. Today, you have so many in the party who are vying for power, ambitious, childish, and they have become exposed in their own weaknesses since the death of ‘Akilisi.”

“The person causing problems with the core team should be removed. I heard from Tonga that some of the PTOA members in Parliament wanted Mateni Tapueluelu to be removed from the core team, but Semisi Sika is hesitant with that proposed action,” Tu’ihalangingie said.

“I believe Sika has problems in his core team, and he does not have the qualities of leadership to deal with this issue. We need to change leadership before the November election,” he said.

Tu’ihalangingie admits there have been two major failures with PTOA since the death of ‘Akilisi. “Firstly,” he said. “We lost the government in the 2019 vote for a Prime Minister to replace ‘Akilisi. That was a major failure.”

“And then there was the opportunity that came up with the Vote of No Confidence (VONC) in 2020. Our members in Parliament were not united and smart enough to make a move that would have ousted the Prime Minister. That was our second major failure.”

He said, “If we do not get our act together, we can fail again at the November election, and that would be the end of PTOA.”

The sentiments expressed by Tu’ihalangingie is quite common among PTOA members overseas and in Tonga, despite the fact there have been fragmentation among them, and these groups are currently fighting and competing among themselves.

One of the most outspoken supporters of ‘Akilisi Pohiva and PTOA is Rev. ‘Inoke Masima, a Church minister based in Auckland. He was asked what needs to be done to move PTOA forward despite the latest problems encountering the party.

He said the leader should step forward to face and solve the problems facing PTOA. “When you hesitate doing so, others with questionable agendas step in to try and take the lead,” he said. “And this is happening in the Core Team (which consists of the PTOA members of Parliament). The leader should act to correct and solve the problems.”

Masima said that “PTOA people are like sheep without a shepherd.” He said the leader whom ‘Akilisi appointed does not have the trust of the MPs in Parliament as well as the PTOA followers. He said it is a split around leadership.

“But we need to pull together to support the leadership ‘Akilisi appointed, and he needs to come forward and lead, declaring the vision of the party, and its manifesto, and that will help move things forward,” Masima said.

Instead of fighting corruption, PTOA became busy with grabbing power

The issue that built into a huge problem had to do not only with who was going to be the leader, but also a rather vicious jostling for position of power among the 9 PTOA members in Parliament.

And the current reason for the jostling for power is that most PTOA members, including those in Parliament believe they may still be able to be in power again as they did in 2014, and in 2017 after the dissolving of Parliament.

The PTOA members had forgotten that ‘Akilisi’s chief mission as declared from the beginning was to fight corruption. Everything he did for the first fifteen years of being in politics was centered in opposing all forms of corruption and calling for reforms that would bring in good governance, the rule of law, accountability, and transparency in government.

But the last 15 years of his life as a politician, as well as PTOA as a movement, was defined not by its opposition stance but by its aggressive and often blind pursuit of power. And PTOA finally made it as the executive government in 2014, and for five years proved completely ineffective and highly controversial.

Faka’osi Maama, former editor of the Taimi ‘o Tonga newspaper, said that the problems of PTOA happened long before the apparent dismantling.

“There were prominent supporters of ‘Akilisi Pohiva and the political group that left due to disagreements one way or another. People like Father Seluini ‘Akau’ola who was the first chair of the movement; Professor Futa Helu, Lawyer Clive Edwards, ‘Uhila Liava’a, Uili Fukofuka, Teisina Fuko, Sunia Fili, ‘Isileli Pulu, Sitiveni Halapua… and many others.”

“The problems of disunity happened some time ago, but they did not call it a dismantling like they do today. They only called those that left… “disloyal and backsliders out of the group.”

“Those that left were highly educated, wise, and mature, compared with the PTOA leaders and core team of today,” he said.

“’Akilisi is gone today,” Faka’osi said. “And he was unable to organize PTOA to continue as a united group. The leaders of today’s PTOA do not leave when they disagree with something. They stay and quarrel among themselves to see who should be in power.”

“As for a solution,” Faka’osi said, “I don’t think they will be able to resolve their disunity problems.”

“I remember something Po’oi Pohiva told me in 2010. He said that the seed that have been sown by his father to the people (the followers) will not be able to be removed as they have already taken root.”

“I was distressed with what Po’oi said, because I knew he was right. I lost hope for any change, understanding the fact that something that has taken root is hard to be uprooted. But today, we are seeing the root of PTOA being pulled out. And even the offshoots are being uprooted.”

“And it’s the leaders of PTOA doing it,” Faka’osi said.

The future that is, the present that was

The fragmentation of PTOA can be attributed to lack of credible leadership. Add to that the lack of a clear vision, and a mission. The late founder and leader seemed to have taken all that to the grave with him.

What was left behind was a fractious group that included the family and friends of the late leader. The main mission was alleged to be the dethroning of the Monarchy, and the handing over of all his political powers to the government.

Separation of power, checks and balance was not an issue entertained by PTOA. They talk of “having a full (or complete) democracy” whatever that is.

Those that oppose PTOA are calling to reverse to the system before the 2010 Constitutional reform, allowing the King to appoint the Prime Minister, and some have gone on to call for the appointment of the government by the Monarch instead of Parliament.

While PTOA and its fragmented supporters are still trying to resolve their leadership problems, the People’s Party under the leadership of Prime Minister Tu’i’onetoa and his deputy ‘Etuate Lavulavu are having a freehand in running the country with no effective opposition to counter.

The party, and indeed the members of Parliament that are supposed to serve the nation with a strong opposition against corruption, and poor governance, are mired deeply in their own problems with power, leaving government to be without effective opposition in Parliament.

The probable death of PTOA may not mean much at all to the way government is run, but it will end a long tug-of-war that have been socially damaging to Tongan Society.

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